In 1971, Ed McHale faced what could only be described as a logistical nightmare.
As a manager at Coney Island, McHale was tasked with overseeing the transportation of more than a dozen rides from the shuttered Anderson Township park to the site of what would become Kings Island in Mason.
Construction was underway to open up a new park in Warren County to replace historic Coney Island, which had been besieged by major flooding and had limited space for parking and expansion.
McHale and his team had 45 days to move the rides in order to meet Kings Island’s opening date in the spring of 1972. They got it done in 30 days.
“There was a lot of pressure, but we did it and we were in surprisingly good shape to get it in operation by opening day,” he recalls. “We were blessed with good winter; if it had been a bad winter or bad fall, I don’t know what we would have done. We got lucky.”
But luck had little to do with it, according to park officials, who say McHale was instrumental in the planning, development and oversight of Kings Island in its fledgling days.
Last fall, the park inducted McHale, who served as the park’s operations manager in 1972 and general manager from 1973-1976, as the newest member in its 2012 Hall of Fame.
The exclusive club of 10 honorees includes such luminaries as park visionary and founder Gary Wachs, former park entertainer Carmen Elektra and ESPN and NBC sports reporter Lewis Johnson, a former rides supervisor.
“He really set the tone for providing that ‘best day of the year’ experience for park guests,” said KI spokesman Don Helbig of McHale. “That’s been in place for 40 years and all goes back to the group Ed was a part of.”
McHale, 90, joined Coney Island in 1952 and moved into a management position there in 1959. He remembers the anxious build-up to the opening of the new park outside Kings Mills.
“We had meeting after meeting after meeting about the construction of the park, the development of the park, meetings with our architects, meetings with all of our department heads and group heads about what we wanted to do and how wanted to lay it out,” he said.
“We spent a lot of time visiting all the top flight theme parks. We had gone to school on some of the other leaders in the industry at that time, like Disney and the Six Flags parks, and we had very close relationships with them,” said McHale. “They were very generous in giving us information, like ‘Do this, don’t do that.’ We took all of that to heart and it helped to make our opening relatively easy.”
With excitement high among staff, the park opened in May, 1972 to 7,000 curious guests who paid $6 admission to the park’s 65 attractions. By the end of that first season, attendance had swelled to 2 million guests, a theme park industry record.
“One of the things that crossed our minds is, what if we opened and no one shows?” remembers McHale with a laugh. “But they did and we were just thrilled.”
McHale oversaw park operations that first year before being promoted to general manager in 1973, a position he held until 1976 when he was asked by the Taft Broadcasting Company — which owned Coney Island — to return to the park to oversee its redevelopment as a noncompetitive amusement park. He retired in 1983.
It had been several years since McHale’s last visit to Kings Island when he returned last fall to accept his award. McHale could only look in awe at the growth of not only the park, but also the flourishing region that has sprung up around it.
“It’s amazing. It really is amazing,” he said of the changes to the park. “It almost overwhelmed me to see the size of it and what as taken place here. It’s a great feeling of success being a part of its opening.